Roots And Childhood: Growing Up At Kakul

Roots And Childhood: Growing Up At Kakul
Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times. Click here for the second part


One event which I remember was my mother’s traffic accident. One day we were standing on a busy road in Karachi. My mother tried to cross it just when the traffic was released. She was hit by a motorcycle and fell down. I remember standing with her when people picked her up and my father came hurrying towards us. Soon we were in a hospital where she was given oxygen. She used to say that she felt exhilarated with the oxygen. She was not seriously hurt but her leg carried the mark of that injury for a long time. As this incident never haunted me, never recurred in sleep or when awake, I cannot say I was traumatized by it but it must have caused me anxiety and fear when it occurred though I do not remember my emotions.

Then came the news that the PAF called my father for an interview for their education service. Abba Mian was selected as a flight lieutenant but one member of the selection board remarked in passing whether he would consider shaving off his beard. ‘No’ replied Abba Mian. The officer remarked that that was his choice. But Abba Mian was too cynical to believe him. He thought he would be coerced into shaving it off once he was in uniform so he did not join the Air Force—something Ammi Jan regretted for the rest of her life. But Abba Mian did do something for which she always thanked God—he joined the Pakistan Military Academy as a civilian instructor of mathematics. This was an officer’s position and I can understand how relieved my mother must have been to learn that her husband had become a class-I officer. My uncle, Shafi Ullah Khan, must have been happy for him too. He was a very sincere man and especially close to his brother.

But there were many a slip between the cup and the lip. Abba Mian went to PMA and came back without joining the service. When my desperate mother asked him why, he replied:

‘I saw many people with large thyroid glands. You would be ill throughout your life’.

‘I don’t mind being bedridden so long as it is in my own house’ said my mother. ‘At least our son will not feel himself inferior to other peoples’ children’.

Abba Mian had to go back and this time he joined the service. I and my mother were to join him later. Later Chacha Mian took us to join him in PMA and I remember parts of this journey. It was mostly by train but then, from Havelian, by a car. I have been told by my mother how elated she felt as she saw the deep greenery of the hills, bathed in rain, sinking in her being. In Karachi she had thirsted for the sight of greenery and pined for the sound of rain drops and now here she was in what she always called a ‘paradise’. In this ‘paradise’, we got a wooden half-hut to live in.

I remember our first meal in that hut soon after our arrival. The cook, who was addressed with the dignified title of khansama, made omelettes for us. But the chappatis (unleavened bread cooked over an iron pan), supposed to be thin and round, were more like the maps of Sri Lanka and other exotic lands. This story was narrated to me several times with relish by my mother who encountered the abysmal level of cooking in this new homeland of hers. Most people who called themselves khansamas were not actually good cooks. Some were, but these my mother found very rarely—they being a rare commodity anyway and forbiddingly unaffordable. Anyway, after this historic meal we settled down but I do not remember the process. However, I vividly remember the hut. It was made of wood with some rooms, huge ones, in a row and a verandah in front of it. It stood in grounds which could not have been less than ten canals though much of it was wild. There were a number of fruit trees and a tap of water in the back. We lived in half of the hut; the other half was occupied by another officer. I used to stand on a little cement mound outside the hut where I saluted our neighbour, a captain, when he walked past me. He saluted me back, laughed and said I should join the army.

PMA Kakul, where even entry is difficult for me now, became my childhood home and it is the only home I know. I was not born there; I was only brought up there. But if you come to see the grandeur of the mountains of Thandiani at the age of three and a half and live in a place till you are a young man of twenty-two, the heart knows no other home except that. This, then, is my feeling for PMA in particular, which I used to call my ‘village’. When I came to read Wordsworth, I used to call the whole of the Kakul and Abbottabad my Lake District. After all, how could I allow Wordsworth to claim the only Lake District in English literature when I, living among green mountains and in a valley of greenery and sparkling water streams called them by less romantic names. I was highly conscious of its beauty. But it was not home; it had been lent to me for a short period of my life. I used to regret that but now I do not any more. After all, even if it had been home, it was not forever. Nothing is! So let me share its memory with you while memory lasts.

I do remember that early image of PMA and the lovely view around it. We lived in the officers’ colony which had these huts surrounded by lawns and untended land. There were fruit trees—apricots, mulberry, plums—all around the huts and the front lawns had flowers.  These huge sprawling expenses had an army of gardeners employed by us as well as PMA itself. These malis worked in all the huts including our own and, though they were said to be experts at dodging, they did see to it that some flowers bloomed too in order to justify their monthly pay. As a sample of the tactics the malis employed let me quote a conversation with one of them which my mother narrated to me:

Ammi: Mali, why don’t you hoe the flowers?

Mali: Na, Begum Sahib, Major Sahib says it is bad for the soil?

Ammi: Don’t you bother. I will take care of it. You do it.

Mali: Ji, Colonel Sahib says don’t do it.

Ammi: That is all right too. You do it.

Mali: Bargadiat [Brigadier] Sahib says NO!

Ammi: It is still fine. I tell you to do it.

Mali (in desperation): Ji! Apna [our own] Sahib says don’t do it.

Ammi: I will talk to him also. Now start doing it till he returns and stops you!

So, the Mali sighed and got to work. But no matter how little they worked the flowers bloomed, the apricot trees were like hung snow with blossom in spring and the huts looked as if they were in fairyland dotted all over PMA. But, despite the area covered by these picturesque wooden huts, there was much vacant land. So much of it, indeed, that some towards the back gate was used for growing maize and vegetables by people from the nearby village. These people must have had some arrangement with PMA for they took away their produce in oxen carts.

Around the huts were hedges, neatly cut and trimmed, bearing witness to the malis’ efficiency. And around PMA were barbed wires which were far less formidable than they appeared. As I grew up, I crawled out from under these wires and also learnt ways to climb above them and jump to the other side. But there they were all around us; witness to the fact that this was a military training area. All around us was a circular wall of mountains of various sizes and at different distances from us. Towards the south the mountains sloped to a pass which was the winding road to Havelian and Haripur which joined the GT road to Peshawar in the west and Rawalpindi in the east. That was the way we took for our journeys to Rawalpindi—the only big city I saw while I was growing up. The mountains were mostly bare of trees but they did have grass and bushes. In the north and north-east, however, were giant pine-covered mountain ranges of which the highest one was that of Thandiani. This peak had such a dense forest that it looked like a dark green blur of vegetation from which I watched the splendour of the rising moon with awed fascination very often. The sun too rose behind the same peaks but this I saw when I was about fourteen and had taken to rising early.

Though for me it was just fun to be alive in such a lovely place and enjoy the rough games with friends, there was not much of what is called entertainment nowadays. We had no hoteling and even ice cream was not available except in the Meena Bazaar or in some restaurants in Abbottabad. The Meena Bazaar was a fun fair held in the summer. The cadets of PMA would have stalls, which were in tents, as did the officers’ wives. My father’s stall was a swing which went up and down and I could have as many rides in it as I wanted. However, he paid my ticket so that the stall did not lose money on account of me. We were given money to buy whatever we wished and I generally spent it on ice cream—freshly made vanilla ice cream which melted deliciously in the mouth. Most stalls had games involving some form of gambling which my parents did not indulge in. I, however, did try my hand at some but always lost. It was, however, fun to be with friends and to go around in the festive mood this event created in all of us.

PMA was an anglicized place so my father, a deeply religious and conservative man, wore suits and a European hat to boot. Later, however, he started wearing a Jinnah cap instead of the hat. It was only after retirement that he gave up the suits altogether. My mother and her friends called each other Mrs. not Begum—Mrs. Fazal and Mrs. Naseer etc. My mother’s closest friend was Mrs. Naseer, wife of my father’s closest friend Syed Naseeruddin who later retired as a brigadier. I visited their house long after our PMA days as we became like the members of a large family.

My mother was not well in the early years of her stay in PMA. I do not know if she was only missing her parents and siblings or whether there was anything physically wrong with her. All I knew then was that she did not eat much and she was weak. She did start enjoying himself whenever there was company because she was also full of life. She had many friends but the ones I remember are Aunty Fazal (wife of Fazal-i-Hussain, Head of Physics Department); Aunty Athar (wife of Athar Ali Khan, Head of Mathematics Department); Aunty Nizami (wife of Nizami Sahib, instructor of Urdu). I was instructed to call them khala—aunty became fashionable later—but their husbands were chacha. Now khala means ‘mother’s sister’ and chacha father’s brother. So here was the anomaly of mother’s sisters living with father’s brothers whereas the husband should either have been khalu or the wife chachi! This was a private joke of my parents and they had few jokes between them. Both Uncle Fazal and Athar had initially accepted a commission in the army respectively in the ranks of major and captain. However, by the time my father joined PMA both had opted to become civilian officers. I was told that in those early days the civilian officers were paid better than military ones and would not be posted away from PMA.

The atmosphere at home was quite good but sometimes became unpleasant. This happened because my father was an irritable man and often shouted when something annoyed him. My mother was very high spirited and answered back leading to heated arguments which made me very ill at ease. In those days I was always completely on my mother’s side and disliked my father despite his care and kindness towards both my mother and myself which I could not see. Later I knew that my mother did nag him and criticized him far more than he did. My father, no matter how much he shouted or what insensitive words he used, never beat my mother nor was he cruel. Once, however, I was awakened in the middle of the night by angry shouts of my parents. My mother was leaving the house and I ran with a bursting heart and caught her legs and would not let her go. She came back to the house and they went back to quarreling in low tones. At that time I thought my father had also hit her but she denied this. I am sure she was right because I never saw my father hitting her throughout her life. Indeed, he loved her deeply but, contrary to what she desired, he had only one way of showing his care: forcing food he thought was nutritious on her, getting her medicines even if he had to walk all the way to Abbottabad—a distance of 7.5 kilometers or 4.5 miles-- to do it, and, above all, openly and tenderly praising her parents. He did not quite register her illness but was inconsolable after her death. For that matter, my mother also loved him though their temperaments made them incompatible with each other. Whereas Ammi Jan would have loved going about seeing the world, Abba Mian preferred to stay at home. She loved all the good things of life; he did not. All he was fond of was a good smoke, preferably his hookah though he was not above smoking anything which could be smoked either, and a book to read. She wanted the radio, the T. V (but that was later) and music; he considered them un-Islamic. Thus, he always put up fights against all her demands—radio for instance—but ended up losing all of them. Mother got her radio and T.V and whatever she wanted though after unnecessary bitterness. In fact, as I discovered by and by, my mother actually ruled the house despite her show of being ruled by an irascible husband. I should add that my mother had a lot of commonsense so it was just as well she made the big decisions. We would not even have had a house had my father got his way. Despite the astonishing speed with which he solved riddles and mathematical conundrums—though publishing was neither in fashion nor was he inclined to it—he was essentially an impractical man.

(to be continued)